Tickling Salmon

Making and Selling Photographic Fine Art in Vancouver

Who is your audience?

When asked what sort of art they make, some people simply reply “portraiture” or “street photography”. Or, if they have thought about it some more, they may point at some of their influences: “I follow in the footsteps of Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, and Ian Wallace.” When asked who their audience is, however, many people will give you a blank stare. But if you want to make a living as an artist, you must know your audience, and know how well your work meets their desires.

I’m going to over-simply things and divide the world of art consumers into four categories: impulse buyers, bourgeois, special-interest groups, and intellectuals. And I’m going to divide the world of art into four categories as well: kitsch art, decorative art, political art, and avant-garde art. These categories are listed in increasing order of prestige for the artist, and increasing per-piece sale price, but this does not necessarily correspond to career satisfaction or annual income.

Kitsch Art and the Impulse Buyer

Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the Riveter (J. Howard Miller)

The impulse buyer makes their purchasing in seconds, minutes at the most. Accordingly, the art that they buy is generally inexpensive (less than $50), visually appealing, and conceptually straightforward. Kitsch. Unfortunately, kitsch has come to have a bad name, carrying connotations of “tasteless” or “mass-produced”. Although much kitsch is tasteless, that’s not what I’m referring to here. When I say “kitsch” I mean that the artwork is making use of well-understood cultural signifiers. Flowers. Buildings. Attractive women. Pictures of abandoned cars with the saturation dial turned to 11 in Photoshop. Rosie the Riveter, or work that references her pose. Coffee is kitsch and Starbucks has 17,000 locations.

If you want to make a living selling to the impulse buyer, you are looking at high volume and low cost, and a smooth and easy purchasing path. (Actually, you are always wanting a smooth and easy purchasing path, but it is absolutely vital in this marketplace). To achieve your high volume (and to keep selling what sells best) you generally will not work in limited editions. It’s often good to have large framed (and limited) work that is priced above the impulse threshold, and then smaller copies that you expect to sell. Rent a booth at the Granville Island Public Market or Portobello West, put on your best smile, and get ready to meet your customers. And, while this may not be where you want to end your career, it is often an excellent place to begin.

Decorative Art and the Bourgeois

Ancora, Venice, Italy (David Burdeny)

Ancora, Venice, Italy (David Burdeny)

When people think of the bourgeois, they probably think of Karl Marx. But long before Marx, the bourgeois rose to prominence with Rembrandt and the rise of the Dutch middle class. Before the 17th century, the only way for an artist to make a living was to have a patron — a wealthy individual or organization that was willing to commission works. And note that word commission. Early artists painted what they were told to paint. If they were bold they might approach their patron with a suggestion, but the work did not begin until the patron was satisfied with the concept. Think of them as commercial photographers, web designers, and graphic illustrators today: people who worked for their clients. But with the rise of the Dutch middle class everything changed. Now there was a group of consumers who might buy work that had already been completed. Now the artist was no longer a contractor, but a manufacturer, producing works in anticipation of demand and then hoping they would sell.

And today this is how the vast majority of artistic careers operate. You make art and store it in your garage or attic until you find a buyer. If you are fortunate, you will be represented by a commercial gallery and they will store your work until they find a buyer. The middle class has expanded greatly in the past century, and the work they buy now ranges in price from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Because the price is higher, the decision process can be longer — up to a month or more. I remember the first time I bought original art (for the to-me exorbitant price of $800) it took me six weeks to make the decision. Fortunately, the gallery owner was prepared for reluctant buyers and had given me a photograph of the art to put on my refrigerator while I pondered.

So what differentiates the impulse buyer from the bourgeois? How much they are willing to pay and how long it takes to make the decision. In other words… nothing. A bourgeois is simply an impulse buyer who is looking at something too expensive for an impulse decision. That means that if you intend to sell to this audience, the rules are the pretty much the same: your work should be visually appealing and conceptually clear. It might be a little more challenging (either visually or conceptually) but probably not too much so. To contradict the famous saying, decorative art will match the sofa… and if you make art that does not match then don’t be surprised when a lot of people choose not to buy it — and when commercial galleries decline to carry your work.

If you want to make a career selling decorative art (and it is the most common successful career path), where do you sell? Some artists sell art for $200+ in the public markets (in addition to their less expensive “impulse purchase” items), but commercial galleries are the usual venue. Work sold in a gallery will almost certainly be produced in limited editions; your gallery can offer guidance as to what edition size is most appropriate for your price and current career level. For the online seller Etsy is popular, though I don’t know enough about it to comment on how effective it is. And, for many people, word of mouth and direct contact with the customer is the primary driver for their sales.

Political Art and Special-Interest Groups

Deda Chicken Processing Plant (Edward Burtynsky)

Deda Chicken Processing Plant (Edward Burtynsky)

Although many consumers are content to let their art purchases reflect their tastes, there are others who want their art to reflect (and announce) their values as well. Whether feminist, environmentalist, religious, gay, or any of a number of other subcultures, these people like to surround themselves with other symbols of their identity. Enter political art.

They say in marketing that success depends on choosing your niche, and the narrower the niche the better. Political artists follow this advice and make work that addresses very specific, often polarized, points of view. Although the work must still be visually appealing (are you noticing a trend here?), the visual appeal is less important than the emotional appeal. Ironically, political art is often the least challenging from a conceptual standpoint. People may disagree with it, but they generally understand it. And the people who disagree with it are not the intended customers — the eventual buyer will be in full harmony with the message.

Where is political art sold? It depends on the strength of the message and whether it is playful, indignant, or raging. The less aggressive work can be sold through commercial galleries, or you can write Canada Council grants to pay for your time. As the work becomes more extreme (and, one could argue, more interesting and worthwhile) it is likely to be carried by galleries that specialize in the particular special-interest group. If you want to make political art the most important thing is to choose politics that you yourself feel strongly about. The only thing worse than getting caught in the hypocrisy of saying things you don’t believe is never getting caught… and spending years of your life doing work that, while lucrative, does not speak your truth. And, of course, have a thick skin. A political artist will be most successful when they court controversy and publicity, and this means drawing the attention of the opposing group.

Avant-Garde Art and the Intellectual

Pine Tree, Spanish Banks (Rodney Graham)

Pine Tree, Spanish Banks (Rodney Graham)

If you have a BFA or MFA you will have been exposed to avant-garde art and artists — people like Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Wall. Avant-garde means any art where the artist is exploring a particular question or subject in a new way, using their art to deepen their understanding of the world. By definition (“avant-garde” means “advance guard”) this art will be challenging on one or more levels. Consumers (and, often, curators of public galleries) buy the art because they are also interested in the question or in the artist’s approach to answering it. And from a practical perspective, they may also hope that the art will be an investment that they can resell for a higher price in the future.

Avant-garde art is, in fact, just a special case of political art. But since intellectuals are running most of the major art institutions and art schools in the world, it’s a special case that deserves special discussion. Avant-Garde art might not match the sofa, and it might not be emotionally appealing (though it probably will be aesthetically pleasing… very few artists make a career making ugly art). And it probably is made in an edition size of one or less than five — even photographic art where there is no technical reason to limit the quantity.

Where is avant-garde art sold? A better question is “where is it shown?” because, unlike other creators, this artist might not actually make a living through the sale of their work. Often they show the work in public or commercial galleries, but make a living as an art instructor at a university or college, or through government grants. If you are interested in avant-garde art your career plan should include an MFA and a teaching or curatorial position, and you should be prepared to spend almost as much time writing and talking about your art as you do making it. And because many buyers of avant-garde art are expecting it to increase in value, it is especially important that you raise your prices regularly and have a biography that suggests that your career is on the rise.

In a Nutshell

If you want to make art, just go out and create it. But if you want to earn a living as an artist, you need to know what kind of art you are making and what kinds of person will be buying it. Unfortunately, along with an education most art schools also deliver indoctrination, and many graduates come out believing that the ideal is to show their work in museums. This is a problem because the most common actual career path involves making decorative art that is sold to ordinary people, so artists often struggle to get into “the club” or choose the commercial gallery career path and think they have “sold out” when they are, in fact, just selling and selling well.

Posted August 3rd, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Revised December 8th, 2011 at 10:56 am

from Marketing

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